Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 12, 2010

The Sweetest Way To Win

It is a warm and sunny afternoon; warmer by several degrees than one would expect for early September. Scarcely a wisp of cloud mars the robin’s egg sky. For nearly three hours now more than 40,000 in the stands have watched a tense, taut struggle between their local heroes and the visiting nine. But now there is anxiety and stress on the faces of the faithful. For now, it’s the bottom of the ninth.

On paper a match between these two squads should be no contest. Their respective records are virtual mirror images of each other. With less than a month to go in the season, the home team has won almost 90 games while the visitors have lost nearly that many. But this three game series has proven once again that there is a reason why they actually play the games. While their season as a whole may be a lost cause, the visitors have been playing surprisingly well since a managerial change five weeks earlier. They have already taken the first two games of this series.

In this game the home nine struck first, scoring a run in the third inning when the center fielder walked, stole second, and then raced home on a double by the left fielder. But the chance to do more damage was wiped out when the left fielder sought to stretch the double into a triple and was thrown out cleanly.

The one run lead lasted until the top of the fifth inning, when the visiting team’s catcher smashed a two-run homer into the left field stands. Both starting pitchers acquitted themselves well obviously. A 23-year old rookie right hander had taken the mound for the home team. Called up two weeks earlier from AAA to help fill in for the inevitable injuries that take their toll during the longest season, he had been impressive in three previous starts. Today, but for the one bad pitch in the fifth, was another fine performance over six full innings. The second year hurler for the visitors was even better, allowing just the single score and but four hits through six and a third innings of work.

With the two starters out of the contest both managers worked their way through a series of relievers, constantly striving for the most favorable matchup between moundsman and batter. In the seventh the home team put runners on the corners with two outs, and the crowd’s volume rose with anticipation. But the catcher grounded harmlessly to third to end the threat. An inning later, the crowd watched quietly as their heroes went down in order, the first baseman ending the inning with a flailing swing at strike three.

So now, it’s the bottom of the ninth, and the 2-1 advantage remains. From the bullpen in trots the fourth pitcher of the day for the visitors. A second year pro recently designated the team’s closer by the newly appointed manager; he has already recorded six saves. As he finishes his warm-ups the loudspeakers blare with the announcement that the home team’s cleanup hitter is coming to the plate, and the fans roar their approval. The first pitch is a fastball and the batter turns on it, sending a sharp ground ball through the hole between third and short. It’s a clean single to start the frame, and the roar of the crowd is redoubled.

Next the second baseman steps in. He’s having a great season, leading the team in batting average. The stadium virtually throbs with anticipation. The closer offers up a fastball which is fouled straight back, and then fires in another with the same result. The third pitch is another fastball and this time the batter puts the pitch in play. But it is a routine fly ball to center field where it is gathered in for the first out.

Now it is the right fielder’s turn to take his licks. In his second season with this East Coast club since being traded from a Midwestern franchise, his outgoing manner has made him extremely popular with the fans. They scream words of encouragement as he goes through his routine before stepping into the left-handed batter’s box. From the dugout he has watched the face offs between the closer on the mound and his two teammates, and he has seen nothing but fastballs. Sure enough, the first pitch is yet another one; but it is outside the strike zone and he lets it pass. The next delivery is a sixth consecutive heater. This one too is wide of the plate, and the right fielder watches ball two.

Two balls and no strikes, a hitter’s count. The batter digs in, anticipating fastball of course. The pitcher does not disappoint, and as this one comes over the plate the bat comes through the strike zone and meets the ball squarely. The sphere launches into the sky as if shot from a cannon. As one the fans leap to their feet even as the center fielder turns and begins a desperate race toward the fence. In an instant the deafening roar of anticipation turns into an even louder one of jubilation as the ball sails into the visitors’ bullpen. Home run! We win!

As the right fielder rounds the bases his teammates pour out of the dugout to form a mob around home. Eight of the visitors trot toward their own dugout. Only the pitcher stands on the mound, as if transfixed. Not until the batter has completed his circuit and joined his teammates in a wild celebration does the closer slowly begin the suddenly long solitary walk to the safety of his clubhouse. Meanwhile on the field grown men continue to act like children, leaping and dancing about, as thousands of their faithful fans continue to scream their approval from the stands. It is a warm and sunny afternoon; one that in an instant just became a glorious day.

The above events took place last Wednesday afternoon in the Bronx. The unfortunate closer was the Orioles’ Koji Uehara. The right fielder who pummeled that seventh consecutive fastball over the fence was the Yankees’ Nick Swisher. But I have described the events generically, because over the course of the longest season, they occur from time to time in every stadium across the land.

Every time the Great Game is played victory can be achieved in innumerable ways. Some games are routs while others are pitching classics. Some, while not recognized as so at the time, are effectively over after the first frame; while others go deep into extra innings. But no manner of victory carries with it the thrill of the walk-off win. It is the adrenalin rush of anxiety turned instantly into joy. It happens to every team, champions and cellar-dwellers alike. And when it does, for that day at least, the walk-off winners and their devoted fans are on top of the world.

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